Protesters calling for the release of Nigerians unlawfully detained in various prisons in China

Chiemelie Ezeobi writes on the fate of over 4,000 Nigerians who are in detention in various prisons in China, where they are allegedly subjected to unfair trials and inhumane treatment

Whilst the perception many have of China is the land of karate, Jet Li and Jackie Chan, its huge population and budding technology, for Francis Jones, a Nigerian, who traveled to China with hopes and dreams of a greener pasture, that dream has since been shattered. He tasted the other side of life in China, beyond what the screen portrays, that has changed his life irreparably.

Jailed for 15months in jail under the most inhumane treatment in a Chinese prison, Jones who spoke at a recent rally held to create awareness on the plight of Nigerians in Chinese prisons, said his problem started from a false accusation that led to an invitation to the police station and then the courtroom to prison.

His charge was that he allegedly assaulted his Chinese wife. He said, “I was detained for a year and three months without making calls. I was not allowed to contact my people nor were they allowed to see me for an issue that I was asked to come and clear myself.

“I was accused of violating my wife’s rights; that I touched her, whereas I didn’t, which did not warrant being detained for an hour. Whoever wants to go to China should be careful. Those people are dangerous.”

Recalling his experience in detention he said,
“Nigerians in Chinese prisons are used as labourers in producing most things made in China, yet they are not paid up to the minimum wage. They set targets based on what machines produce. If you don’t meet the target, your sentence won’t be commuted.”

He said due to the challenge of language barriers, some Nigerians in detention do not know what is being said during their trial, since it is conducted in Chinese, adding that after that, long sentences are handed to first time offenders.

Jones, who said he attended the rally because he had witnessed first-hand what Nigerians go through in Chinese prisons said, “What is happening there is really scary. I never pray for anyone to experience it, because it is hell on earth. What we read in the news is different from how the Chinese treat Nigerians there. They treat the black people like animals. They trade human organs. They subject people to hard labour.

“If you don’t work hard enough, your sentence will not be commuted. For instance if you’re given 20 years, if you’re very hard working, they could reduce the sentence. There are thousands of Nigerians in Chinese prisons being used as slaves. Most of them don’t know when they are coming back home because the government doesn’t care for them.

“China has prisoner exchange programmes with other countries where citizens return to serve prison terms in their countries. So, we’re calling on Nigerians to intervene for our citizens. Many have died. Sometimes they will execute Nigerians, claiming the embassy signed for their death.”

On how he was released, Jones said his wife, whom he was accused of assaulting helped out. He said, “My Chinese wife helped me. I fired my first lawyer who wanted to collude with the Chinese to alter my statement. The Chinese hate blacks. All they want is our money. My wife used to pay through her nose for me to be a bit comfortable in prison – just to get fresh air. Sometimes my temperature would rise so high.”

Like Jones, another returnee prisoner, Chidi Cruiz, said close to 80 Nigerians died in Chinese prisons since last year. He said, “Our people are going through hell in those prisons. I spent nine years and a month there. We’re pleading with government to do something urgently to release our people or bring them back home to serve their sentence. They treat us like animals, some are not even guilty of the crimes they are accused of. There is no fair trial.

“Sometimes our embassy doesn’t believe the things we tell them. The embassy staff come to the prisons once in a while but the problems persist. The Chinese authorities confiscated everything I had, all my sweat. I was set up with a Chinese woman. They found foreign currencies in my place and I was charged with money laundering.

“During trial they didn’t even allow me to make a call. They would intimidate you because you have nobody there to stand up for you. There’s no human rights there. It’s like slavery. During trial, the people they bring to translate don’t even understand English. They mis-translate English to China.”

Unlike Jones and Cruiz who are today free men, there are still many others who are still behind bars in different Chinese prisons, who are victims of unfair sentencing and trial, delayed cases, and are being treated as human machines.

A Needful Intervention
Thus, after years of going through the issues alone, the families later found a help in the Patriotic Citizens Initiative (PCI), a non-governmental organisation, that has been doing all it can to mediate in the situation.

Recently, the NGO and the affected families stormed FESTAC Town, Lagos, where they held an advocacy rally calling for the Federal Government’s urgent intervention. The families carried placards, some which read: “China, give Nigerians fair trial”, “China, stop killing Nigerians”, “Nigerians die monthly in Chinese prisons”, amongst others.

According to PCI’s director, Osita Osaneme, a lawyer, no fewer than 40 Nigerians are executed yearly or die mysteriously in Chinese prisons, with some undergoing unfair or no trial at all.

The Prisoner’s Tale

The prisoners, in a statement, accused the prison authorities of violating their rights. They said they are not allowed to contact their families, nor are they given access to lawyers for proper representation in court. According to them, their cases are deliberately delayed by the police, prosecutors and judges so as to force suspects to confess to crimes they did not commit. Such delays, they said, last for as long as five years, with the suspects kept in detention until they give in.

They alleged that prisoners who are sick are not given proper care. According to them, in Guangdon Province prison, suspects are forced to shower with cold water during winter even if it leads to their untimely death, adding that relatives are also allegedly denied visas.

In their letter, they lamented, “We Africans in Chinese prisons and detention centres are treated as lower humans. Some of us were picked up based on mere suspicions or coincidences, or being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes people are manipulated into committing crimes they did not intend to. The police will refuse to investigate thoroughly or verify allegations before making arrests.”

According to them, their right to call their families is dependent on the amount of work they do. Despite being turned to human machines, they lamented that the pittance given them is not enough to buy toiletries. They said, “Our phone bill per month in some prisons is as high as six Renminbi (RMB), but we are paid as low as one RMB or 0.5RMB. We labour day after day, yet after serving for even up to 20 years, inmates cannot even boast of up to one dollar savings.”

The prisoners also leveled grievous allegations of organ trafficking against the prison authorities. They noted that although some of them are found guilty as charged, it was however degrading to harvest the organs of those condemned.

They said, “People are sentenced to death for the purpose of harvesting their organs for sale. So many of our colleagues who are not even on death row cannot be accounted for. Again, some of these sentences handed Nigerian suspects are unfathomable. If one is arrested in China, you are kept for as long as three years before trial. If you are found guilty and given a death sentence with two years suspension, it will take about three years to change the verdict to life sentence.

“You have to wait for another three years to be given a fixed term which is usually between 20 and 25 years. You will discover that it takes about nine years for a sentence to be converted to a fixed term. These nine years are not counted as part of the time served. All this is because the Chinese government uses prisoners as working machines to make their products at no cost. Most of the ‘Made in China’ products are produced in Chinese prisons by prisoners at little or no labour cost.”

On the unjust judicial system, they claimed that because the Chinese authorities promote police officers, prosecutors and judges based on the number of people they are able to convict, “In desperate need for promotion, these officials rape and abort justice, cover up the truth and line up false witnesses in their own selfish interests and due to their hatred for Nigerians. They hand out excessive sentences to Africans because their governments do not care about their citizens.”

Pains of Affected Families
Expectedly, the greater burden lies with the families
of the detained suspects, who daily battle with uncertainty and fear of the unknown.
For Mr. Louis, a Nigerian businessman, who travelled for a business trip 30 months (two years and six months) ago, mum has been the word as he is yet to return after being jailed on yet-to-be ascertained charges.

In fact, when the wife, Mrs. Amaka Louis got married to him, she never dreamt of spending the rest of her life without her husband. Mrs. Louis is among families who are demanding justice for their relatives who are victims of alleged unfair treatment by Chinese authorities.

She said, “I am married but I have been living like a widow for over two years and six months. It has been a painful experience for me. I am pleading with the government to intervene. I haven’t even heard from him all this time. I have contacted the Nigerian Embassy, to know if I could speak to my husband. I have been calling but to no avail.”

Another family is the Ezeonu’s, whose brother has been in detention for years. According to his sister, Miss Nkiru Ezeonu, the Buhari administration should intervene urgently in their matter. She said, “My only brother is in detention in China. He’s been in prison for over seven years. We have been pleading with the government to intervene so that they are given more humane treatment or bring them back to Nigeria to serve here.”

Also, one Chimezie Njoku, whose relative is also in detention in China, said if there is an enabling environment, youths would not go to China in search of greener pastures. He said, “Through government’s help, they can return. Our country should not abandon its citizens abroad. And when these people return, they should be helped to resettle because they can contribute to the growth of this country. There are so many able bodied Nigerians languishing in prisons.

“If the child of a governor or minister or top politician were detained, the government would surely go after him. But because it involves ordinary Nigerians, the government feels unconcerned. They don’t care for the ordinary Nigerians. And that is why other countries take us for granted.

“Also, if there was an enabling environment, I don’t see why Nigerians would be trooping to China to seek employment. We have the resources to be an industrialised nation, but the problem has always been management.”

A Call for Help
The prisoners and their families unanimously called on the Federal Government to come to their aid and their plea was corroborated by PCI Director, Osaneme, who called on President Muhammadu Buhari to ensure that the rights of Nigerians in Chinese prisons are enforced. He said, “It is true that most of them might have committed offences, but these people were not given fair hearing. I interviewed some of them and they said they were just dumped in prisons there. The prison authorities perpetrate all sorts of atrocities against them like breaking their legs.

“All of this is because nobody is asking questions. I feel that it is necessary for us to ask government to intervene. The government must investigate if these things are actually true because they are atrocities.
“If a country can be harvesting Nigerian citizens’ organs, it is very wrong. There are procedures for these things. If there is a drug crime or a case of illegal migration, there are procedures. People should be given access to justice.

“So, we’re asking the Federal Government to please intervene. If possible, send a delegation to find out if what these Nigerians are saying is true. These Nigerians have wives and children back home. We’re not saying they may not have committed any offence, but the government should intervene because an accused also has rights.

“Former President Olusegun Obasanjo went to Thailand to rescue Nigerians suffering there. If you commit an offence in Thailand now, you can come back and serve your prison term in Nigeria. If Nigerians in China are demanding that they want to serve their prison terms in Nigeria, the government should go into agreement with Chinese authorities. That is our demand.”

In the same vein, the prisoners also urged the government to, “Look out for us, especially those that cannot be accounted for and find out what happened. The Chinese government should also release photographs, DNA and details of all unclaimed dead Africans or provide their ashes if incinerated to African embassies in China so that the families can lay them to rest. Because some Africans entered China with fake passports or without passports, the only way to identify these hundreds of bodies and ashes is by releasing their pictures and through DNA testing.”

The prisoners also urged the government to prevail on the Chinese government to repatriate those of them who have served at least five years or more in prisons. They said, “The Chinese government should bring African countries to a roundtable and discuss repatriation of their citizens. China has benefited so much from Africa yet they treat us like animals.

“If African countries decide to crack down on the Chinese some of who also engage in illegal activities on the continent, there will be many Chinese prisoners in African prisons, if not that our governments turn a blind eye to their illicit activities in Africa. The African Union and the Nigerian government should make effort to bring back Nigerians in Chinese prisons.

“The African Union and the Nigerian government should always demand to know when Africans in Chinese prisons were arrested. If the Chinese tell you a Nigerian has served two years, it may mean 11 years when counted from the day of arrest. Some have stayed in prison for up to 10 years since their arrest, yet they have 20 more years to serve.”

While the PCI has said it has written a petition to the Federal Government to investigate the fate of Nigerians in Chinese prison, the affected families continue to wallow in pains and fear of the unknown.